A love story
AFTER three years, the College of Overalls closed. The reason was that the teachers had taught me all they knew. At least that’s what they said. What they were really saying was, that it was time for me to use what I had learned. I was twenty-one already. Even more, at that time, America was home to a new feeling of hope: if you were intelligent and hard work- ing you had the right to rise.
I could speak Dutch, English, German and Russian. I could build anything, repair anything, grow anything, and change the diapers of my four nieces and nephews—thanks to Lara and Win having another set of twins. Thomas Jefferson Stone and Benjamin Franklin Stone would also never know what it’s like to lose your homeland, and I was glad. Like their older brother and sister, I promised them that I would be a successful uncle and a successful American. In the 1950s, that meant one thing: moving to New York.
By the early 1950s, all the talk was that “the future” was in steel and electricity. And there was only one starting point for that future: New York. The idea of moving to New York terrified me and intoxicated me all at the same time. Uncle Elbert wrote to friends on the Lower East Side asking them to take me in. He promised they wouldn’t be sorry, and I promised Uncle Elbert he wouldn’t be disappointed in me.
On a hot June afternoon, I got on the bus feeling like I was going to my burial. Aunt Magic, Lucia, Lara and Lilly, and even Miss Matoon, all cried like I had already died. It was awful. But it reminded me of something Uncle Irving said once. He always had a way to make you laugh (even when he was the most down). He said, “For heaven’s sake (and he meant it), when it’s my time, don’t have a funeral! I want an auction!”
Uncle Nikkk gave me his suitcase, the same one he used when he left home for the first time. This was my second time. The only thing that made it better was that I didn’t have to get myself decontaminated when I left. Just to be safe, I packed two bars of Good Will Soap in the bottom of my bag. Aunt Magic bought so much Good Will Soap that she got a free wagon from the company one year.
My suitcase held two shirts, two pairs of socks, one extra pair of pants, and a wool sweater Lucia made me. The rest of it was filled big, heavy jars of pickles and tomatoes for Uncle Elbert’s friends, and, finally, a bed quilt from Aunt Magic. The quilt was a beautiful star pattern. I loved it. Aunt Magic told me to remember the North Star when I looked at it. “New York isn’t New Hampshire, Will. Sometimes you’ll feel like a frog in a blender. But don’t forget, no matter how much things change around you, there are some things that never change. Find those and hang on to them.”
Only then did it hit me that I had never been in a big city. My pride never forgave me for doing something so foolish.
Lara and Win gave me a new pair of shoes. They said no one would guess I was an immigrant with new shoes. That made me feel better. I kept looking down at them just to make sure they were still there.
Uncle Elbert gave me his pocket watch and shook my hand like a real man. “Will, I’m real proud of you. But remember, wealth never solved the problem of poverty. It created it. Men don’t need gold watches, Will. The gold doesn’t keep the watch going. Learn how the watch works. You won’t be sorry.” His words sounded like Aunt Magic’s kettle when it’s just about to boil. They were full of emotion. In the worst way he wanted me to understand. He was the only one among us who had lived in a big city. He’d seen them rise up and come crashing down more than once. Now I was heading to the most amazing and frightening of them all.
It seemed like the bus would never arrive. I kept tugging on my cap and adjusting my new jacket. The jacket had sixteen pockets. Uncle Irving gave it to me when I began applying for jobs in New York. He filled every pocket. It was no use having a pocket if it wasn’t filled—and that, in the end, was what got me to New York. There was a Swiss jack knife in one pocket and a screw driver in another. Another pocket had a flashlight. The best of all was the box wrench. It was six-sided instead of twelve. It had been his dad’s and he carried it in his pocket every day since high school. I tried to give it back to him, but he wouldn’t hear of it. In the top breast pocket he put a $50 bill folded like a fish. “There’s no profitless experience, Will. There’s only learning. If you get thrown in the sea, be sure to come up with a fish in your mouth.”
“Uh-huh,” I replied in shock. I had never seen a fifty dollar bill before.
Like I said, thanks to my new jacket, I got to New York. I had applied to work on what were called skyscrapers, buildings so tall they let ordinary men, and especially immigrants, touch the clouds. Immigrants were the only ones desperate enough to run along those narrow steel bars 1/4 of a mile up in the sky. But for an immigrant, the thrill of it pretty much summed up New York. It didn’t matter where you started from, all that mattered was the chance to climb higher.
My application had been accepted if I could pass the physical. The problem was, I wasn’t heavy enough. You needed not only bravery, but brawn to build to the heavens. When Uncle Irving took me to the doctor’s office, he told me to be sure to get on the scale as soon as I got into the examing room. And, sure enough, it worked. The nurse came in, looked at the scale, looked at me, and then shook her head. “You sure don’t look like you’re 174 pounds, young man!” She then told me to undress and wait for the doctor to come in and check all my moving parts.
I don’t think we could have pulled that off in the big city. I was, in fact, only 160 pounds. My jacket weighed fourteen.
As the bus pulled out of Alton, I suddenly realized that I didn’t know what Uncle Elbert’s friends looked like. “Uncle Elbert,” I yelled out the bus window, “How will I find the Abramovs?!”
“Don’t worry! They’ll find you! Just be sure you get the New York Central. Don’t worry . . . they’ll know you by . . .” I couldn’t hear the rest of what he said.
I kept my suitcase on my lap to keep my knees from shaking.
THREE hours later, I was standing on a curb outside Boston’s South Station unable to move. The roar of the city pressed against me like an invisible hand. I didn’t know there could be so many cars or trucks or buses on a street. Even the ground vibrated, as if all that frightening, maniacal movement was controlled by some engine whirling, spinning and pounding away somewhere under the streets. It wasn’t even human. But it was alive. I looked one more time at the note Uncle Nikkk gave me:
You’ll arrive at South Station. Find the train station. Get on the New York Central. It will take you to Penn Station. Don’t set your suitcase down anywhere! We’ll always be proud of you no matter what, Will. —Uncle Nikkk
I might have stood there forever if a voice behind me hadn’t said, “Where you going, son? Is this your first time out of Wolfeboro?” I looked up and into a face I was sure I knew. My mind raced inside my head. I was sure I knew his face. Then I remembered. He had brought a clock to Uncle Elbert to fix.
“Yes, sir,” I answered, “But I’m from Alton, not Wolfeboro.”
“Ah,” he said, with a voice that was somehow disappointed. “I didn’t see you get on in Alton. Well, where are you going?”
“I need to find the train station, sir. I’m going to New York.” I wished the words hadn’t come out shaking. I wondered if he noticed.
“The name’s Tromped. What’s yours?” He was now looking me over carefully. Finally I saw that he was looking down at my new shoes.
“My name is William Tilly, sir.”
“Ah, now I remember! You’re the immigrant boy who worked for Hammel. So you can speak English, can you?”
Before I answered he said, “Well, come on, I might as well show you the way. That’s where I’m going too.”
We got in a long line at the train station, but he didn’t say anything the whole time we waited. Once, he pointed to the ticket window as if I couldn’t really understand English. But I understood very well he was embarrassed to be with an immigrant. It was all my eyes could do to hold in the hurt.
Suddenly, two men, trash collectors at the train station, caught sight of me. One of them yelled out, “Well I’ll be, Bobby! Look what we got ourselfs here. An imm'grant boy headin' to the big city to make his fortune! Maybe he’d like us to throw away that ol' suitcase of his!”
The other man laughed loudly and made for my suitcase. Suddenly someone from the ticket window yelled out, “Enough of that you scum! Shut your mouths or I’ll report you!” They ran off, but the damage was done. All eyes in the line were on me and when Mr. Tromped bought his ticket, he didn’t so much as turn around to say, “Good-bye.”
I could hardly see for the hot tears filling my eyes. The man at the ticket counter tried not to notice. “Going to New York, son?” he asked quietly.
I nodded yes. If I had tried to talk I would have cried.
“How much money do you have for a ticket?”
“Two dollars, sir.”
He took my $2, sighed and then shook his head. “Go to Platform 5 and run to the end. That’s where you’ll board. Hurry along now. You only have 10 minutes to make the train.”
Only when I sat down in my seat did I see that the ticket cost $3.
I FOUND a seat all alone. The car was about two-thirds full—they were mostly families traveling together, but a few working men sat at the back. I put my suitcase on the floor, wiped off the bottom of my shoes with my hand and put my feet on my suitcase, and stared at my new shoes. In my short life, two worlds had been taken away from me and I still didn’t know my destination. I wanted to cry in the worst way. I fell asleep instead.
When I woke up I was startled to find a young girl sitting next to me. She looked to be sixteen or seventeen. Here and there, her blond hair escaped from the rich, colorful scarf on her head. She, too, had new shoes.
“Hello,” she said, shyly. “I sorry. I wake up you?”
“It’s O.K.” I replied, embarrassed at having been asleep. I hoped my mouth hadn’t been open. “Where are you from?”
She paused as if she was afraid to answer or as if she didn’t understand. I couldn’t tell which. “I - I from Russia. Where you from? You speak English gud.”
For the next two hours we talked, it seemed, without taking a breath—in Russian. I felt so proud of myself and so grateful to Uncle Elbert. It was funny, but I felt like I had known Shura all my life. She was the first girl I had not felt embarrassed talking to. For all our differences, I had found someone who was the same: someone who had been given the gift of life—but with no place to call my home.
Shura came from a big family. Ten of them had come to America two years before, including her mother’s parents and her father’s brother. Her family had been rich in Russia, she said, but not in New York. She saw me twist my cap when she said that, so I quickly put it back on my head. Her father, she said, knew they had no future under Stalin and so the family left, leaving behind his huge iron ore factory. Her mother, grandmother and aunt had sewn the family jewels into their petticoats. Shura’s toys had been stuffed with money without her knowing it. The family carried only a few summer clothes in their bags. They had gone by train to France and then boarded a ship for America. She and her brothers and sisters were told that they were going on a summer vacation. They didn’t learn until they got to New York that it was forever.
I asked her to tell me more about the ship. Her face lit up. “Chudyesnoya dealah!” [It was wondrous!] She described wooden beds and silk sheets and dining rooms with chandeliers. I could hardly believe she was describing a ship. She said music played every night and women in long dresses danced with men in black suits. Her father and mother danced away, never giving any hint that they were running away. Her father had hoped to join up with a steel company in America, but relations with Russia were already bad and people were afraid of them she said, looking down suddenly.
“So what does you father do?” I asked.
“He has a food shop under an overpass. My sisters and I help too.”
I looked up and, to my horror, the train was pulling into a station. It couldn’t be Penn Station! It was too light outside, I thought, to be in New York. We weren’t due to arrive until 8:12 pm. I looked at my pocket watch. It said, 8:10 pm.
“We here, Will.”
“Shura, where do you live?” I asked, as a shrill, screeching sound and awful jolt announced our arrival.
“Parents bad if I with you! Gud-bye, Will. Gud-bye.” Before what she said could sink in, she was up and hurrying down the isle.
Her parents would be angry if they saw their daughter with me?! Was it possible, that’s what she meant? She was an immigrant too! Even if she had been rich once.